What would happen if you gave a classical music appreciating audience a reading assignment? I was invited to give the pre-concert lectures for the first two weeks at the Grand Teton Music Festival and decided I would try something different: a “book club style” pre-concert chat.
A week before we were to perform Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), I gave a few reading and YouTube suggestions to audience members who were planning on coming to following week’s pre-concert talk. But, I also mentioned that just like a real book club, one wouldn’t necessarily need to read up on the material to participate in the open discussion and sharing of thoughts.
The six ancient Chinese poems that composer, Gustav Mahler found meaningful enough to include in his Song of the Earth were easy to find on line. Additionally, during the week leading up to the “book club” I posted several interesting videos about the work on my Facebook and Twitter feeds so audience members could add to their studies if they wanted.
The night of the “book club style” pre-concert talk I expected most to have skipped the little assignment but was pleasantly surprised! People came with notes and they came with thoughts and ideas!
I briefly went over the material of each poem and movement of the work for those that may have missed the little assignment. We then got some really good discussions going.
Some of the discussion topics and questions were:
- There are a number of repeated ideas and themes in these poems written by various authors. Why did Mahler find these poems relevant?
- Is there any significance of the colors and objects mentioned in the poems?
- The songs that the male sings are based around alcohol, the songs the female sings are not. Why?
- What was Mahler’s motivation for featuring these poems, for himself or for others?
It was stunning how audience members each had something to add, either from personal journey with the work, or a view point about a particular poem that wasn’t so overt.
One audience member felt that the three poems centered on alcohol, sung by the male voice, were because it was more acceptable for men to drink than women back in Mahler’s day. Another mentioned that the songs sung by the female voice were representing more sensible and grounding topics, rather like Mother Earth.
Regarding the colors and objects mentioned in the poems, there was a great discussion of Chinese cultural references and importance of colors. One audience member mentioned that the color white was associated with death and went on to note that there was not one mention of the color red in any of the poems, which would have been associated with luck or happiness.
People shared their feelings of why Mahler wrote this and some went to their personal notes they brought. “Mahler had just lost a daughter to illness and just discovered he was quite ill, too.” Then the discussion turned to whether writing Das Lied was a form of therapy for Mahler or a reminder to his fellow human beings how short life is and how to enjoy it.
One of Grand Teton Music Festival’s audience members and supporters, Chuck Herz, pointed to the Robert Frost poem, Nothing Gold Can Stay, as similar sentiment of Das Lied. He then recited the poem for everyone which was a perfect way to end the “book club” as our mere 30 minutes of time was up. Before everyone left, I said I’d stay around on stage after the performance if anyone wanted to follow up with thoughts.
After the concerts, several audience members told me how the poems and music morphed for them in various ways. Some felt that the idea of eternity in the work reflected beautifully with the setting of the Grand Teton range. Some shared that the resonating bass sounds punctuated the idea and gravity of the work. A few people said they enjoyed the nod to Chinese music represented by the flute solo and mandolin at the end of the work.
Probably the most heartfelt comment was from a high school counselor who was visiting from New England. “The shared discussion and shared experience made the performance much richer for me. I feel a new connection to life and the eternity.”
Personally, I felt there was a unique perspective allowed by opening up the conversations. While studying the piece as a musician led to one point of view, I felt that the greater meaning of the work was truly accessed for me after hearing other people’s thoughts.